Cain Thurmond: Strategy, Logistics, and the Future of the Railroad

As an ambitious 18-year-old, Cain Thurmond knew he wanted to pursue an agriculture-related career, but like most young people setting out into the world, he had little idea of the diversity of opportunities available to him. He certainly didn’t anticipate that his career journey would begin on a railroad.

After college, Cain joined the sales and marketing team at CSX, a major U.S. freight railroad connecting 23 states and two Canadian provinces with a 20,000-mile rail network. He quickly put his understanding of agricultural economics to work, serving the company’s important agricultural and food products customers.

“I think the 18-year-old me would be surprised, but also very excited, to see that I come to my job every day looking forward to the challenges we navigate and the pivotal role that this industry plays in the American economy,” says Cain. 

What is a Railroad Sales Manager? 

Cain notes that the role of the railroad industry and the magnitude of its impact on the U.S. economy is often misunderstood. As a sales manager at CSX, his role is to contribute to customers’ success by helping them make the most of rail-based transportation solutions to move farm commodities efficiently and cost effectively.

It’s more complex than it sounds. One little understood aspect of rail service is that of competition. While a single rail line may serve a given territory, rail customers often have choices in the form of trucking and barges. Cain needs to work constantly with customers to offer the best service in a competitive transportation marketplace.

“My job is to bring value to customers by offering rail solutions that work best for their supply chain,” Cain says.


Competitive Strategy

Unit Train System

One example of his company’s competitive strategy is a new service that CSX introduced in 2019 called a unit train commitment program. A unit train is one composed of over 90 cars carrying the same commodity from the Midwest to the Southeast. These trains move raw products quickly and efficiently from the Corn Belt to areas in the South where animals are fed and grown. 

Using a unit train commitment program, customers commit to moving a certain number of grain sets (blocks of cars dedicated for their use) throughout the year, rather than relying on the reservation system in which CSX controls the car supply. Through this program, the customer is given more responsibility and ownership of these sets, which in turn gives them greater control over the timing of service. 

Incentivizing Railroad Traffic

Another program, implemented in 2003, was the Express Program created by CSX to incentivize quick loading and unloading of grain unit trains in 15 hours or less. CSX provided customers operational and financial incentives to become more efficient. The service has fundamentally transformed the efficiency with which grain is moved.

“When we think of how far we have come from 2003 to today, the infrastructure changes our customers and CSX have made are astounding. We have moved from shipments that were primarily single cars to a majority of grain moving in unit train service,” explains Cain. 

Interacting with Customers

In addition to working with customers, Cain also maintains close contact with the CSX Operations team. “I am the customer liaison with Operations, working externally and internally to make sure issues don’t arise, and, if they do, finding ways to quickly correct them,” he says.

By being proactive in his role, Cain’s goal is to ensure that customer’s needs are met effectively and that potential issues never dominate the conversations he has with customers. 

Aside from assisting with service, he also works with customers to renew both annual and multi-year contracts, and he coordinates with the CSX Industrial Development team on new rail projects. For example, he would have an important role in a project to build a new rail spur to a customer currently not rail-served to enable rail service.

“We get really excited about growth because we have a fantastic Industrial Development team dispersed across our network. We work together on these opportunities,” says Cain.

At the end of the day, Cain’s role as a sales manager is to make sure that customers are taken care of and that the railroad is doing the right thing for both the customer and for CSX. Doing everything he can to meet those needs and continue growing the company is what’s most important. 

The Future of Trains

Although many people recognize the huge contribution of railroads in U.S. history, the industry’s ongoing role and potential to support a more sustainable future is also a compelling story. Through technological advances, railroads continue to extend their advantage over trucking as the most fuel-efficient mode of transportation on land.

Plus, new automation technologies are greatly contributing to operating efficiencies that have dramatically increased the reliability of rail service while also enhancing rail safety, Cain notes. Automated track and equipment inspection are already having a major impact, and fuel efficiency and customer transparency tools are also promising technologies for driving improvements.

Career Advice

Looking back on his career path thus far, Cain advises young people to be open to the many possibilities ahead of them but also to accept that there will likely be bumps in the road. No matter what happens, he says, the ability to bounce back is what will define you. He advises that you surround yourself with mentors, ask questions and learn every day. His most important advice? Become a master at is the art of following up.

“Meetings are only as important as the follow up,” he says. “If you don’t send an email to recap, describe next action ideas, or schedule a next meeting, then maybe your meeting wasn’t worth having.” 

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Katie Schrock